To Lefty to Willie to Phossy with Love

Trawling through the music blogs recently, I came across the above picture that made my day. It’s a picture of Willie Nelson with his arm around a starstruck (and at least slightly stoned) young man at the State Theater in New Jersey. It’s a pretty unremarkable fan pic, except that the young man in question is Matt Houck, front man of the Brooklyn-based Phosphorescent, whose recent album To Willie amounts to a musical love letter addressed to the artist Houck claims has been more influential to him than any other.

Listening to earlier albums by Phosphorescent, one doesn’t immediately pick up on the influence of Willie Nelson. Houck’s gently cracking voice immediately calls to mind Will Oldham, while the almost teasing quiet of the instrumentation links Houck to contemporaries like Iron & Wine. Then there are aspects of Phosphorescent’s first two albums that were anything but contemporary, reaching back to the Carter Family and the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers for a mountain gospel sound marked by shape note singing, a distinctive harmony structure with deep roots in the South.

On the first two albums, Houck uses this sound to evoke a haunted quality shared by some of Nelson’s material, but the consistently somber sound of Phosphorescent shows little of Nelson’s genius for melding the sounds of weariness and sadness with a gentle good humor.

All the more surprising then, that when picking Nelson tunes to cover for the tribute album, Houck chooses not to dwell entirely in the shadowy end of Nelson’s catalog (although his renditions of “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way”, “Permanently Lonely” and “Can I Sleep In Your Arms” are paralyzingly powerful), but romps through songs like “I Gotta Get Drunk” and “Pick Up the Tempo” with a looseness, not to mention humor, barely hinted at in Houck’s earlier work.

The influences upon a musician operate in ways impossible to chart. For some artists, an adopted style can serve as a cocoon within which their nascent style can develop and eventually emerge, a sort of artistic mentor, but it can just as easily become a cage. Favorite artists can provide a comfort zone musicians to return to recharge or simply relax, as with Bruce Springsteen’s gloriously slapdash We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Or they can be objects of an almost Oedipal hatred: an idol to be torn down. But even in railing against the influence of another artist, the musician must admit that influence and its inescapability. Like Br’er Rabbit and the tar baby, every blow struck just brings the two closer together.

Rebelling against influence can produce remarkable results, as the career of Willie Nelson demonstrates. Nelson and other members of the so-called outlaw country movement were reacting against the Nashville country music establishment, but in attempting to become everything the establishment wasn’t, they demonstrated their keen knowledge of everything it was and in doing so, redefined what it could be.

One of the defining traits of Willie Nelson’s career has been his rebellion against the slick, polished Nashville sound, most recently by remastering his own Nashville recordings and removing the Countrypolitian production excesses he felt marred the original songs to produce this year’s Naked Willie album, utilizing the same skills of songcraft he developed as a Nashville songwriter.

At the same time, members of the outlaw movement were always willing to cite and pay tribute to those artists whose music they felt an overwhelming affinity for. Both Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings sent loving musical missives to country swing pioneer Bob Wills (Haggard’s A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World [or, My Salute to Bob Wills] and Jennings’ “Bob Wills is Still the King”), and in 1977, Nelson released To Lefty, an album of Lefty Frizzell covers recorded just before the fellow Texan’s death and held back from release out of Nelson’s respect for the singer.

If not for To Lefty, one might not immediately guess at the importance of Frizzell to Nelson’s music; their songwriting styles are markedly different and Frizzell drifted out of his trademark honky tonk sound into a more commercial Nashville sound around the same time Nelson was becoming disenchanted with that sound. But hearing Nelson’s renditions of Frizzell’s tunes reveals the depth of their impact on Nelson, an impact not so much overt as genetic: Frizzell’s laidback delivery underlies Nelson’s singing style, one of many elements that Nelson synthesizes into something entirely his own. After listening to To Lefty, the listener can go back to previous Nelson albums with a new ear.

Phosphorescent’s recent album, styled entirely on Nelson’s tribute album down to the cover font and the album label’s message, “To Willie, from Phossy” (To Lefty’s label reads “To Lefty, from Willie”) similarly highlights the importance of Willie Nelson to Matt Houck’s work, the presence of Nelson’s music in Houck’s artistic DNA. The album changes the way the listener hears previous Phosphorescent albums, revealing the insistent hopefulness of even Houck’s most apparently bleak songs, a quality shared by some of Nelson’s most heart-wrenching ballads: despair is never quite submitted to and the beauty of the song remains as a spark of hope.

Houck also lays a lasting claim on the songs, playing them not in a slavish reiteration of Nelson’s style, but in an adaptation of Houck’s style best suited to the material, which retains aspects of Nelson’s delivery, those aspects nearest to the heart of Phosphorescent’s musical project, while adding new elements.

Perhaps most importantly for Houck, who has stated that he was always going to make this album, it was only a matter of when, embracing the influence of Willie Nelson’s music has opened new doors, personally, commercially and artistically. At the very least, it got him a phone call from the man himself, an invite onto the famed tour bus, and a chance to perform at Nelson’s 76th birthday party. The album has gotten more widespread press and exposed Phosphorescent to an audience outside the standard indie rock circles.

And by allowing some of the humor that made him love Nelson’s songs to blossom in his own, Houck has raised hopes that the next Phosphorescent album, due out later this year, will have a laugh or two to balance out the tears. As Houck turns out the lights on To Willie, an album more upbeat than any of his previous efforts, yet still carrying his unique voice, Houck promises, almost smirking, that tomorrow he’ll start the whole damn thing again.